Alex Salmond's new show on RT has put his credibility at risk
I find myself in a dilemma. Having agreed to take part in one of Alex Salmond’s stage shows during his live Scottish tour to talk about women in journalism, I now wonder - could he contaminate my credibility?
It’s a strange state of affairs, I know. After all, Salmond is, in my opinion, one of the great political giants of our times. You don’t need to like him to recognise that he has 30 years’ experience as an astute parliamentarian both at Westminster and Holyrood. He’s a schemer, a tactician and a skilled operator.
While for many, he divided a nation over the question of independence, he made history by taking us to the brink and he ignited a debate that shifted the bar. Over his political tenure, he genuinely elevated Scotland to dizzy heights in terms of global recognition, ambition and stature. He shifted our thinking from being ‘the best small country in the world’ to being the best in the world and while some carped that it was grandstanding, he put us on the world stage and forced us to think big.
That’s a proud legacy. It’s one that should have longevity and give him value but within a week, he has put that credibility at risk.
Salmond’s crime is he sold the broadcast rights of his own-made television chat show to the Russian state-owned broadcaster, RT. This, it’s argued, legitimises a broadcaster of propaganda and given it is funded directly by the Kremlin, which in turn is accused of killing journalists and interfering with the world order…well, you can join the dots, even if he refuses to do so.
There has been a barrage of condemnation. Salmond, typically, is unrepentant and displays all the two-fingered hubris that so enrages his critics and affords him little grace. But, regardless of how he spins it, it is an own goal.
Salmond underestimated the consequences for himself, his party and the cause. He got into bed with the Russians at the very time that concern about Russian influence in western politics has intensified.
Spain’s PM, Mariano Rajoy, claimed only last week that half of the Twitter accounts that amplified the issue of Catalan independence were registered in Russia and with every indication of Russian meddling in the EU referendum, Theresa May has described the Russians as “weaponizing information” to sow discord.
Ciaran Martin, head of the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre – a branch of GCHQ – has also confirmed for the first time that Russian hackers had attacked British media, telecoms and energy companies during the last year and warned: “International order as we know it is in danger of being eroded.”
Thus, with avoidance of a Cold War paramount, Salmond’s timing could not have been worse. As the pro-independence writer Darren McGarvey, so astutely observed, Salmond has set up “a new permanent residence in the [independence] debate by creating a previously unthinkable association between the Kremlin and the drive for Scottish independence.”
Let’s pick this through. As of June, Salmond was an unemployed MP and perhaps more dangerously, an underemployed ex first minister.
He did discuss making his chat show for a UK terrestrial channel and for this I take some blame, having introduced him to a key TV executive. However, ultimately, he was considered politically ‘too hot to handle’. Consequently, he marketed himself elsewhere and interestingly, given the risk identified by home-grown channels of bias, the Russians bought him.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin, has been linked to hundreds of fake Twitter accounts now under investigation for being the ‘Reds in our threads’ by attempting to influence and disrupt British democracy by sowing the seeds of distrust and division via a plethora of incendiary social media content.
This is all true.
So, too, that hundreds of British politicians and journalists have been interviewed by RT and indeed, only last month, Boris Johnson attacked Jeremy Corbyn and other Labour politicians for appearing on the channel before it emerged that his own father, the former MP Stanley Johnson, had as had numerous Tory colleagues including the Brexit minister, Steve Baker.
RT has, over the 12 years of its licence to broadcast in the UK, been sanctioned 14 times by Ofcom for mainly breaching rules of impartiality. As have many other domestically owned channels.
RT has also been forced to register as a foreign agent in the US. But, as dramatic as that sounds, so too have bodies as diverse as, VisitWales, the British Tourist Authority and Scottish Enterprise.
So, while there are clear reasons for having serious doubts about why a former first minister would lend his credibility to an organ of the Russian state, there is also a lot of faux outrage. Let’s face it, the Fourth Estate is being hypocritical in criticising Salmond for lending his credibility to RT when it spends its whole time arguing he has none.
In truth, Salmond could have become a monk and he would still have garnered fierce criticism for being self-serving.
But Salmond is an emblematic figure, not just for independence but for Scotland. What he does, matters. He did not seek prior approval from the First Minister or from any of his previously close advisers – because he knows the answer would have been ‘nyet’.
But for me, crucially, his reputation was not his alone to tarnish. It rests on the shoulders of the many Scots who invested their dreams in a man who spearheaded going it alone but in the end, found himself in the pocket of Putin and truly played by the Russian state.
The true extent of Russian interference in our political discourse may never be known but we do know we have been under attack and when it comes to defending our democracy, Salmond, of all people, should know what side he is on.